Let Me Sing of Beauty

Nvoo SGK home20170513_009Sometimes I just have to give praise to God for the glories of this earth He created.

We have been very busy for the past several weeks in our service assignment for our church, but we have still had time to enjoy the beautiful things and creatures on Heavenly Father’s good, green earth.

The woods north and south of the place we live “are lovely, dark and deep.” (Homage to Robert Frost here.) We have seen deer watch us curiously as we are out walking, and Squirrel Nvoo 9My17_00438other creatures—including lots of lively squirrels—scampering nearby. The neighbor’s bird feeder draws cardinals, blue jays, redheaded woodpeckers, and other beautiful birds we can see from our kitchen window.

To the east, toward sunrise, there are houses with beautiful expanses of green lawn and fields with healthy crops coming up. One mile to the west, our street ends at the Mississippi River. Before the river, there are the restored homes and sites of historic Nauvoo, surrounded by bright flowers (including some that we helped plant last week).  More often than not, the evening brings a spectacular sunset across the Mississippi.

The works of man here are interesting, but the works of God are glorious. They bring these thoughts.

O let me sing of beauty

In creation’s wide expanse,

For thou art surely master

Of more than form and function,

Adding artistry in the shaping

Of the countless living things

That fill our ordered sphere.

How shall we see a leaf

And fail to recognize

Thy careful hand as artist

In its green pulse of growth?

Cardinal Nvoo My17_DSC00470How shall we see a cardinal

And not ask if brilliant red

Was somehow essential

To its graceful flight?

How can we see the river’s

Wide and surging power

And not see in its flow

The surging fount of life?

We live midst ordered systems,

Each driven by its laws,

Yet something more than order

Dresses and shapes creation,

Something more than function

Adds hue and pleasing form.

The delights of earth around us

Are products of Thy hand.

O let me sing of beauty

That is a gift from Thee.

  Thank the Lord for Small Blessings

The steering of the car began to feel a bit mushy, and I noticed that the low tire pressure indicator was lit up on the dashboard. Then a woman driving past us on the freeway mouthed, “You have a flat tire.”I pulled off on the shoulder and set the brake. As I got out to check the tires, a strange thing happened. The thought crossed my mind clearly: “There will be hidden blessings in this.”

The right rear tire was down, and had been chewed up a bit by the rim before I was able to stop. How could there be a blessing in that?

It was the first time I had needed to change a tire on our minivan. My wife dug out the owner’s manual and I verified that I would indeed have to move the part of the load that was in the center of the vehicle, pull up the carpet, and remove the wooden covering over the spare tire well in order to dig out the jack and runty looking donut tire.

After wading through a muddy ditch to find a big rock to wedge under the front tire, I went to work. I had been at it for about 15 minutes when a car stopped behind us on the shoulder and a young man got out. He asked if he could help. Now, I learned to change flat tires probably before his parents were born. I had already done the muscle-straining labor of removing the lug nuts and was in the process of jacking up the car. I told him I could handle it just fine. But he had me when he smiled and said his mother had taught him always to help where he could, and he wouldn’t want to disappoint her. So I let him go to it. Maybe the Lord had told him he needed to serve someone that day, I thought

The tires were nearly new—less than 2,000 miles on them–and they came with a warranty from a national chain. While we were working on the tire, my wife used her phone to look up the nearest store for that tire company. It was less than a mile away, down at the end of the freeway off-ramp just ahead of us.

When he finished with the tire, the young man followed us down to the tire store to be sure we got there safely. We thanked the Lord for him in our hearts as he drove away. About an hour later, after eating our sack lunch in the waiting area, we were on our way with a new tire.

A skeptic might say, “Where was the blessing? You lost a tire and faced some danger and inconvenience on the side of the road. And that tire could have failed anywhere.”

Exactly. If it was going to fail, that could have happened on Interstate 80 in the barren middle of Wyoming during the cross-country trip we have to make next week. But it didn’t.

You can believe what you want to believe, but I’ll believe what the Lord told me by the voice of His Spirit when I got out of the car: there were hidden blessings in the experience.

And I wonder how many times, when things happen that seem discouraging or troublesome, do I fail to see that the Lord has provided blessings in disguise?

Tolerating Faith: Lessons from Nauvoo

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Sunset across the Mississippi, seen from Nauvoo

Nauvoo, Illinois, is a small place on an out-of-the-way bend in the Mississippi River. It rates a footnote in American history because for about four years in the mid-1800s it seemed a safe haven for persecuted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—Mormons.

But suddenly Nauvoo is relevant again because we in America still have not learned lessons that should have been learned there in the 1840s.

Mormons had been driven from Missouri under threat of extermination, in the dead of the winter of 1838-39 with only the clothes on their backs. The mob war against them had been tacitly approved in an extermination order issued by the state’s governor. There had been murders, robberies, rapes, and beatings, including the massacre at Haun’s Mill. No one was spared—not even children. Their leader had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges for which there was no evidence.

Fleeing eastward, they found haven, and sympathetic helpers, in Illinois. They built up the new city of Nauvoo, and members began to gather there. But by 1844 their relationship with neighbors had gone sour again. The reasons were social and political as well as religious. Politicians began to fear the power of Mormons voting as a bloc. Their Christian religious beliefs were unorthodox. Among other things, some of them practiced polygamy, believing they were following a command of God given through a prophet. Much of the information that was circulated about them was false—lies concocted by people who were

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A memorial to Joseph and Hyrum Smith, martyrs for their faith, in front of the Nauvoo LDS Temple.

ignorant of their doctrine but wanted to turn public opinion against them. Their leader, Joseph Smith, was assassinated by a mob.

I have been reading a lot about Nauvoo lately because my wife and I will be spending some time there as missionaries. In a country that proclaims religious freedom, there is plenty of room for differing views on doctrine. Many Christians find reason not to accept LDS doctrine, and I would defend their right to do so. But facts from history leave little room to doubt that what happened to the Mormons of Nauvoo was unjust and criminal.

The federal government failed to protect them and their rights. State governments failed to protect them. They were driven out of the then-United States to the Great Salt Lake Valley. When that territory was annexed by the United States a short time later, the persecution over their beliefs continued until—again by the command of a prophet who received a revelation from God—they abandoned the practice of polygamy. Before that happened, enemies tried to destroy the Church with laws targeting their beliefs (beliefs that seem relatively tame now, in an era when courts are dealing with issues of same-sex marriage and gender by choice).

But all that persecution is past now, right?

Or does some of this sound familiar in light of current events?

Today, we still have religious minorities under attack because their beliefs are different. Demagoguery and unsubstantiated, bigoted rhetoric has given the hate-mongers in our society license to go after people they fear or dislike.

Christians, including Mormons, who hold to the belief that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman are under attack by those who see themselves as more enlightened and more sensitive to acceptable social norms. Many people cite religious freedom as they reject traditional beliefs about morality, yet they are willing to violate the freedom of others by trying to force them to accept ideas repugnant to their consciences.

People who hate don’t seem to need a reason to attack Judaism, and haters attack Muslims based on half-truths or falsehoods. What little I know of Islam suggests it is a religion of peace whose name has been hijacked by remorseless and sadistic criminals. In any case, barring or booting people from the United States based on the fact that they come from a predominantly Muslim country does not live up to the ideal of religious freedom we hold up for the world. Never mind that Christians are not given tolerant treatment or religious freedom in Muslim countries; this country espouses a higher standard. Let’s live up to it.

An attack on the religious freedom of any minority is an attack on the religious freedom of all of us. We do not have to agree on doctrine to agree that we each deserve the right to worship according to our own faith. Whether we call him God or Heavenly Father, Yahweh or Allah, our obligation of faith and obedience is to Him, and no one should interfere with that so long as our worship does not hurt anyone else.

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The inscription below the tower on the Nauvoo Temple proclaims “Holiness to the Lord.”

One basic Mormon tenet is this: “We claim the privilege of worshipping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may” (Articles of Faith). No one need be a Mormon to accept that this is a fair expectation of religious freedom. I can easily live and work alongside those who believe and worship differently than I. We will no doubt find that we have much more in common than we knew.

So, back to the lessons of Nauvoo. Mormons were victimized, persecuted, and driven out in Missouri, then Illinois ostensibly over religious differences. Has that kind of persecution stopped in this country? No, not for religious minorities whose views are seen as incorrect by self-appointed arbiters of social norms, and not for those who are the targets of hate.

Neither those who hate nor those who impose politically correct theology actually believe in religious freedom. Their view is that it should apply to those who see things their way, or those who share their ethnic heritage or skin color. The haters and the politically correct are often in the same camp. In the name of orthodoxy or racial and ethnic purity, they are willing to forego tolerance. They let themselves believe that people who do not share their philosophy or their heritage don’t deserve or can’t be trusted to handle freedom of choice.

It’s time for those who truly cherish religious freedom to say, “Enough.”

It is long past time for those who say—with fingers crossed—that America stands for religious freedom to act like they really mean it.

It is time for religious freedom without qualifications—without this mental reservation: “if they believe and worship as I do.”

 

 

“Save the government”

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When our third- and fourth-grade grandchildren come over to visit, they like to play in the unfinished room in our basement. Sometimes they set up the card tables and chairs to play “school,” or “store,” or “city government.” I was a bit shocked and saddened a couple of days ago to find two signs they had posted on the wall: “Save the government,” and “Make it so terror does not become the government.”

I wondered: Are we adults responsible for this? Have we somehow instilled in them such anxiety about what is going on in the world that they fear for their freedom? Is this the legacy national leaders are leaving to children—doubt and fear?

Children should not have to worry that their way of life—freedom as they know it—is going to disappear.

They hear, and they know. Times have been tumultuous recently, especially in the political arena. Our resolve and our commitment to a democratic republic have been tested, and the tests are ongoing.

Integrity seemed to be an early casualty in the 2016 election campaign. Honesty and civility suffered severe setbacks. Freedom of speech and thought are under ongoing attack.

But I still have confidence in the right to think and speak what we believe to be right. I have hope that in the end this freedom will prevail.

Now, I am a natural-born pessimist. I tend to believe Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” I live prepared for people to disappoint me, seeking their own welfare first and foremost, ignoring the common good. (And how often, I have to ask, am I guilty of this?)

Fortunately, my wife–ever the optimist in our home–balances me out.

But as I have gotten older, I have become more optimistic. I have come to realize more and more that living in expectation of trouble is no way to build a worthwhile life. If you want happiness, look for it, seek it out, and if necessary, make it yourself. If you don’t want to be weighed down by gloom at the end of the day, look for happiness and joy along the way. They are there when you pay attention. Did you find them in the slant of early light through the trees this morning? In the mother at the store with a young child, or children, curiously and delightedly getting to know the world around them? In a quiet opportunity to read and ponder great ideas?

More and more I have tried to implement in my life the counsel of a man I accepted and honored as a prophet of God. Gordon B. Hinckley taught: “There is a terrible epidemic of pessimism in the land. . . . I come . . . with a plea that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight.” He shared this counsel from his wise father: “Cynics do not contribute, skeptics do not create, doubters do not achieve.”

We can all learn from our mistakes, of course, and we all have need to repent of our sins and errors. But when we look at those mistakes, do we also consider the good that may have come from our more selfless actions?

Struggle in this life begins when we are very young, and it will continue as long as we live on earth. After more than 70 years of facing it, the only useful approach I see to dealing with this struggle is simply to keep going on. Move forward. When you keep moving forward, you eventually reach your goals.

Again, I have come to rely on the counsel of Gordon B. Hinckley: “Keep trying. . . . Be believing. Be happy. Don’t get discouraged. Things will work out.”

That is a lesson I hope to help my grandchildren learn.

 

 

The Rose Parade and Repentance

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This wasn’t what people came to see—a man with a banner and a bullhorn calling on them to repent or face the wrath of God.

They came to see the annual Rose Parade, an event whose organizers like to call it rose-prd-2ja17_dsc00293America’s New Year celebration. They came to see pageantry and pomp and beauty. What they saw instead, before the parade, was people telling them they are wicked and sinful and they’re on their way to being damned.

Spectators along our part of the parade route didn’t take this news well. The people with the banners and bullhorns were booed, there were snickers and jibes about their message, and there were cheers and clapping when the police motorcycle squad came along to clear them off the parade route.

It was hardly news that many of us are sinners—or at least it wasn’t to me. I know that I often do things Jesus Christ would not have approved. I am a man full of mortal weakness, and I certainly have need to repent. But most of us don’t enjoy being called out publicly for our hypocrisy or vanity or weakness.

I know that Jesus Christ will come again to the earth and we will all be responsible for the way we have lived our lives here. But the preaching we heard on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena that day didn’t seem like the best way to spread the good news of His gospel. There was a lot about wrath and very little about the hope He extends to us if we repent. I believe hope is more effective in changing lives than chastisement. We all know our own sins. What we need to understand is how things can change for us when we give them up.

Still, I have to admire the courage of the people who were out there preaching. They must have known they would be received with ridicule and antagonism. It was the same reception given to prophets in Old Testament times, in Christ’s day, in Book of Mormon societies, and even in the present day. Those street preachers in Pasadena knew that what they did before the Rose Parade would be uncomfortable, unwelcome to many, possibly even hazardous. It took faith and deep commitment to their beliefs.

Something tells me that all of us who believe are going to need this kind of courage and commitment in coming days. Many of believe that a child knowingly invited by two people to grow in the womb has a right to experience life on this earth. Many of us believe that our gender is an assignment given before we came to earth and that rejecting it is rejecting a path God wants us to follow. Many of us believe that marriage was instituted by God to create a partnership in which one of His daughters and one of His sons grow together through mortal life, and beyond. We who believe these things are accused of ignorance, of bigotry, of narrow-mindedness by those who wish to force us to accept their way of thinking.

It is as though we were heretically teaching that the earth is round, when everyone agrees it must be flat, or that the emperor, naked as the day he was born, is wearing a beautiful new suit of clothes. Our very right to believe anything other than the groupthink favored by the most vocal and strident among us is being challenged. There are indications that anyone in our society who cannot accept a new “reality” that ignores moral anchors can expect to be punished. We may be shunned or charged, illogically, with hate and prejudice. There will be no escaping the intellectual tyranny.

If we insist on maintaining our right to believe according to our faith, and not according to the dictates of an unmoored society, we may need the depth of commitment of those street preachers at the Rose Parade.

Charity: An Opportunity Missed

20-billMy wife and I were out for our morning walk on a cold December morning. We were busy talking about our plans for family holiday activities when we met part of a small family coming toward us—a woman and two children.

The woman was African—or at least the bright dress she wore, with no coat, seemed African. The children, a girl of about nine and a boy of about six or seven, wore thin jackets. The girl had outsize shoes that looked like they could have been her mother’s, or perhaps something from a thrift store rack. My mind registered the mother and children as perhaps recently arrived refugees. I hoped they had a secure place to settle in.

We were several seconds past them when a voice whispered in my mind, “She could have used that $20 bill you’re carrying in your pocket. You were looking for a way to donate to charity.”

I looked over my shoulder but could not see them. Which way had they gone? Around the corner to the store we just came from? Down a side street? Into one of the houses along here? No, probably not that.

Why am I so slow to see opportunity right in front of me?

What would she have said if I had offered her the money?

Most of us probably walk around every day overlooking opportunities to give and to serve. Often we’re too wrapped up in our own concerns; that is not only usual, but normal for mortals. We have to look outward to discern how others may be in need. The tip-off might not be a frayed old coat. It might be a frayed life, or a threadbare, gloomy outlook. It might be thin, struggling faith.

Maybe it’s too awkward to think of helping; we don’t know how to begin. Maybe “You have a problem and I want to help” could be phrased a bit more diplomatically. “Is there a way I could help you? May I?”

Maybe there’s a risk that helping could get out of control. “If I offer to help, they may take me up on it, and I have so much giong on right now. . . .” If we’re going to say “May I help?” we’d better mean it.

Offering to help might lead to more of a commitment than I expect. “What if $20 isn’t enough? That’s all I have to give right now.” Not so. We can give time, we can share faith in the heavenly proclamation of peace to mankind, and we can share resources. If we don’t have more money to give, perhaps we know someone who does. Or perhaps the time we give could help someone in need find spiritual or temporal aid to take away hopelessness or pain.

A little thought can open our minds to a lot of possibilities.

And what would that woman have said if I had stopped to offer her the $20?

I don’t know. But next time I’m going to find out.

 

“Some Assembly Required”

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Bolts, washers, and end caps ready for packaging.

Probably every adult reading this has had the experience of buying something that needs to be assembled according to “simple, easy” instructions. And many have had the experience of getting part way through the task only to find that a key component is missing.
The parts list says: “Eight 5/16 X 5 ½” bolts. Eight ¾” washers. Eight tan plastic bolt end caps.” Now where was that last bolt? Let’s see . . . one, two, three, four . . . seven! Only seven 5/16 by 5 ½” bolts! Now how am I supposed to finish this???
Sound familiar? The absolute worst time for this to happen is on Christmas Eve. (I can remember making a metal shim out of a piece of copper so a bolt would stay in place and I could finish putting together a little boy’s tricycle before morning.)
Maybe all the bolts are there, but one hole is in the wrong place. Or maybe the bolt is just too big to fit.
So we mentally curse the dunderheads at the factory who left out that one bolt, or drilled the hole in the wrong place.
Well, this afternoon I found myself on the other end of the process. In fulfilling a volunteer service assignment, I ended up working in a furniture factory putting together the hardware packages—bags of bolts, washers, and bolt end caps—that go with a piece of assemble-it-yourself furniture. It is precisely the kind of work I never could have done for a living. It seemed mind-numbing at first. Back when I was 16, I had the opportunity to visit a Chevrolet assembly plant in Wisconsin. Workers standing on the assembly line used air wrenches to tighten the same two or three bolts in the car frame, then stepped away until the next frame moved into place, and repeated the same process over and over and over. Never! No matter how much it paid, I thought, I could never do that hour after hour, day after endless day. (Maybe that is why robots are doing so much of the work in factories these days.)
But this afternoon I learned several things: the work is not as mindless as it looks; I can make the assignment challenging; and my mind can accomplish others things at the same time.
The supervisor showed me how to do it: Line up eight bolts in a specially slotted board, count out eight washers and eight end caps, put them all in a plastic locking bag, roll up that bag and pack it into a storage bin, then start over. He opened a new box of bolts for me and left me on my own. Soon I was experimenting with different ways to do the job more effectively or quicker. Some things worked well, others didn’t. I found the system that worked best for me, got into a rhythm, and built up my speed. Before the end of the shift, I met the goal I had set for myself—use up that entire large box of bolts and start on a new one.
After some practice, I found I could multitask; my body and part of my brain were doing the job at hand while another part of my brain was turning over and fleshing out some new ideas.
Life can be like that. Certain tasks can seem mundane, boring, even useless, though they must be done for us to move forward. We can curse them and put them off, or we can accept the challenge, find our own ways to simplify and overcome them, then move on to things we feel are more productive.
But in meeting the challenge, we grow, and God makes us more capable of doing the things He wants us to do, the things that are most important for us to do on earth.
That is the way we move toward the perfection the Savior expects of us (see Matthew 5:48). We will never reach it here on earth, but here on earth is the place to learn how to go forward in eternity.